Changing Perception about Green Buildings and the Importance of ESG by focusing on Health and Wellness

In August’s Insights, I talked about the Living Standard initiative and the first round of our campaign’s research. Standard Issue Volume I, which was released in April of this year examined how we can build a more diverse and inclusive sustainability community, also explored the urgent need to recalibrate the way we talk about climate change. As this first volume demonstrated, climate change is not widely understood and more specifically, there’s real confusion around buildings and their impact on extreme weather, natural disasters, and the health and wellbeing of people.

Just a month later, we launched the second volume of this report series, which delves even deeper into how the general public views sustainability and green buildings. The findings of Standard Issue Volume II also provide critical insights for how those of us in the ESG community should talk about the work we are doing — especially with regards to health and wellness.

The report samples 1,850 adults across the U.S. and found that, by large margins, respondents indicated they believe environmental problems are important, but they do not believe the issues are significant enough to make action a priority. When asked to rate how important environmental problems were to them, 82 percent responded that they believe environmental problems are very or somewhat important. But it’s not a clear cut sentiment. Of the 82 percent, only 49 percent believe that environmental problems are very important, while 33 percent say they are somewhat important, suggesting this large majority is not all alike and that the respondents who fall within this 82 percent majority believe environmental problems are significant but with different levels of intensity.

But here’s the linchpin in all of this: we can’t lump responses together. We must dissect and understand the spectrum of sentiment on these issues. Intensity, or lack thereof, will correlate with action, or inaction. Our research suggests the simplest way to connect with others on the environmental stakes is to frame the conversation around people, and particularly around the health, safety, and well-being of their friends and families.

When asked to select three things they feel most passionate about protecting and improving, the “very important” and “somewhat important” survey groups said they were most passionate about protecting the health of their family and friends, at 61% and 63%, respectively. And the top reasons both groups say people should demand action to address environmental problems is “our families deserve to inherit a safe, healthy environment” and “environmental problems are already causing unhealthy air and drinking water, which hurt me and my family’s health today.”

But, those we surveyed also labeled their surrounding environments as unhealthy, and nearly half of them have direct experience with asthma or dirty drinking water. When we asked what they would do if they learned that something in their environment around their home was putting their health at risk, almost half indicated they would make real adjustments to their routines and consumption habits in order to protect themselves and their families from harm. Almost three in 10 respondents would mobilize or take action, by donating their time or money to support those impacted by an environmental disaster in their immediate area. One-fifth of respondents would engage local elected officials to solve the problem. Over a third of the respondents would make minor changes and wait out the threat or make no changes and not worry, and one in six would actually relocate to a healthier area.

Even though we experience an event together, it does not mean we react the same way, with the same urgency, and the same intensity. And, interestingly, even though they indicated they wanted to or would take action, many of these same respondents don’t feel the agency to make their circumstances better.

The report also found that people do not often consider how the places where they spend their time affect their health. When asked how often they consider the health and environmental impacts of the buildings they spend time in, 39 percent said they never considered it or do not know. This lack of awareness is significant, yet interestingly, 50 percent considered it very important that green buildings improve health.

For those of us in the ESG community, the findings have particular relevance. In recent years, ESG has grown in prominence and the global investment community has led strong on Environmental and Governance. But when it comes to the Social side, we hope this report will provide the ESG community with a deeper understanding of how investors can make a positive impact on society. The ESG community can leverage the findings in this report to educate their employees and asset managers, and to take better care of their most important assets — the actual people who inhabit the structures they own.

The more awareness the ESG community can bring to the Social impact of green buildings, the more widely accepted ESG will become in the future. And by raising the profile of the Social side of ESG, we can truly transform the ESG landscape and usher in a new era of impact investment. Positive financial performance and governance are of course, crucial, but positive contributions centered around our collective health and well-being will ensure the ESG community plays an indispensable role in creating a better living standard for generations to come.

This article was written by Mahesh Ramanujam, Chairman of GRESB, President & CEO of USGBC, President & CEO of GBCI.

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